24:2 (2009:05) Horizon Award Winner Essay

May 14, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Award Winners, Guest Editorials | Leave a comment

HORIZON AWARD WINNER ESSAY
Kristen Blake

SERIALISTS VERSUS THE WILD

It would be difficult to imagine two careers perceived more differently than those of librarian and wilderness adventurer.  In the popular imagination, librarians are known for their practicality, thoroughness, and love of organization.  Wilderness adventurers, on the other hand, brave the elements and star in shows on the Discovery Channel.  A closer look, however, reveals that the two professions have more in common than first meets the eye. The skills required to navigate a treacherous stretch of river rapids aren’t that different from those needed to face the turbulent waters of serials librarianship.

Before embarking on a journey, any good adventurer knows that it’s essential to survey the terrain and identify obstacles ahead.  In the same way, serials adventurers have been diligently scouting the mountain of change facing their profession.  What they’ve seen is a quickly evolving landscape where library processes, organizational structures, and patron expectations have become ever more complex and challenging.  New publishing models and the proliferation of electronic resource packages that must be renewed every year have begun to introduce serial-like qualities into many types of materials.  The 24/7 nature of online resources means that patrons expect access problems will be solved any time of day or night.  And to top it off, budget cuts across institutions have downsized many acquisitions and cataloging departments even as the amount of complicated work these groups are expected to perform increases.  Surely, the environment that serials librarians face is a challenging one.  But like experienced adventurers, serials librarians are specially trained to navigate difficult landscapes.

Just as an adventurer wouldn’t leave for a rafting trip through the mountains without packing a helmet, a lifejacket, a wetsuit, paddles, and of course the raft itself, so do serials librarians rely on a specialized suite of tools to help them navigate the complexities of their work.  A new generation of electronic resources management (ERM) systems are becoming standard at most libraries as serialists place a high priority on storing and accessing data about electronic resource license agreements and usage statistics.  The emergence of standards has aided these quests significantly.  The wide adoption of the COUNTER and SUSHI standards by libraries and publishers has made it easier to automate the collection and analysis of usage statistics, a development that benefits not just serials librarians, but also their colleagues in collection management and reference departments.  The release of ONIX for Publication Licenses promises to spur a similar change in the storage and access of license data through use by publishers and libraries alike.

ERM systems also provide a potential platform for the development of workflow engines that will aid in carrying out the complex, nonlinear tasks that have come to dominate serials work.  Vendors promise workflow modules that will accommodate the entire serials lifecycle, including iterative tasks like managing trials, negotiating licenses, and renewing packages. These systems are also expected to enhance communication by allowing serialists to create notes, ticklers, and alerts that address both the routine and unexpected maintenance that serials inevitably require.  Many libraries have shown their trailblazing spirit by joining in the effort to create effective workflow systems through collaborations with vendors and development of open source software.  The Open Library Initiative (OLE) Project, for example, has acknowledged the need for a workflow engine as part of its ambitious plan to develop an open source integrated library system (ILS).  Who better to design the gear best suited for serials work than the librarians and library support staff that carry out those tasks every day?

No adventure, whether it be on the river or in the library, can be successful without foresight and planning.  As serials librarians encounter a changing environment, project management skills have emerged as absolutely key to the successful management of any serials enterprise. Limited funds and staff time mean that every process and every project must be looked at in terms of scope, hours, efficiency, and benefit to the institution.  Cross training has become more and more popular in serials units, as it allows staff duties to be easily shifted to take care of emergencies or make up for a vacant position. Spreading serials training across staff has also become essential as units that traditionally handle monographs must cope with the serial characteristics of new types of electronic resources, such as e-books and streaming video.  In light of these developments, libraries have begun to embrace the need for strong serials managers, and some even offer their staffs project management training and software.

While the serials landscape, with its heart-stopping whitewater and imposing mountains, may appear daunting at times, let’s not forget one of the central tenets of any adventure: it’s supposed to be fun!  Wilderness buffs ride rapids and climb mountains for the thrill of conquering the environment, and serialists likewise derive great satisfaction from meeting the challenges of their work.  Opportunities to learn about emerging technologies, work with a variety colleagues, and contribute a vital service to the library community make serials librarianship the career of choice for librarians – like myself – who plan to build a stimulating career in a field where adventure is always around the bend.

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